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Honoring a genuine Notre Dame hero

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, January 20, 2006

For each generation, the road of life winds past a precious few who touch others in some valuable way. Many of those unique, noble men and women of stellar character serve as great teachers and role models at educational institutions. They define the fabric of their time, contribute to everyday life and are the pillars upon which eras are distinguished. Notre Dame has seen its share of what this column called “angels” of our time. While they have enriched the Notre Dame community throughout its history, surely more who have yet to walk the campus will follow for future generations yet to come.

Typically, it is a sad moment when we learn of the passing of such campus icons. It was particularly difficult for this writer to learn in a note with a Christmas card that one of Notre Dame’s giants is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer. Rex Rakow, Director of the Notre Dame Security Police, has transformed a small campus security office into an extensive protective operation. His attention towards years of public crime fighting is now focused on a personal struggle.

Rakow is a relatively quiet man, the type of person who remains calm in a crisis, but who can respond when necessary with the power of a giant. He is a man of vast common sense who cherishes the spirit of the law while deciding on the application of the letter of the law. It is not uncommon for Rakow to understand the stupidity of people’s actions while shaking his head in disbelief. He displays the perfect personality for a law enforcement manager in today’s society, but could have been a successful sheriff in a frontier town or an “Untouchable” in Chicago.

During the Reagan presidency when I worked on Capitol Hill, Rakow attended a law enforcement conference in Washington and came to visit me at the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a pleasant surprise, for I was the one who usually popped unannounced into his office while on campus for an alumni meeting or football weekend. Rex has a natural ability to make anyone feel welcome, even when he is away from the university. It was the first time in my many years of unannounced travel to Notre Dame that I felt less like the noisy uncle who overstays his many visits but welcomed, almost as a part of Rakow’s campus family.

This is a difficult time for Rakow and his immediate, as well as his extended family. While they search for newly emerging medical procedures in hopes of a future remission, Rakow occupies his office and performs his duties each day. Only families facing such situations can explain their enormous stress and trails of faith.

Last year, Pope John Paul II demonstrated to the world how to gracefully face mortality. We are on this earth only as long as we need be to learn our life’s lessons and set examples for others. While society seeks answers for longer, healthy lives, Catholics are reminded that Christianity was not meant to be comfortable.

Our Church teaches us that faith is not based on God correcting the ills of the just while punishing the sins of the wicked. Too often, Americans – especially televangelists with their slick gospel hours and misinterpreted, self-serving biblical quotations – appeal to our greed rather than our spirituality. John Paul II’s affliction – debilitating presumably one of the holiest among us – reminds us that one of the most primary lessons of life is actually death.

For those of us who know Rakow, we would rather he, like John Paul II, could live a healthy life well into retirement and eventually pass to a heavenly reward peacefully in his sleep. Ironically, that may be the least spiritual of ways to genuinely know our inner self, faith or purpose of life. Without facing the shock, despair or disbelief of a debilitating condition, we cannot focus on our faith with such clarity.

My thoughts, prayers and best wishes are with Rakow and his family. He, like so many of his fellow Notre Dame angels before him, have touched many lives in a valuable way. During this time, I feel helpless. I am once more an outsider for not sharing a common pain or fear with Rex. I can only admire his strength, his poise and his fortitude.

Events happen for a reason. The friends we make, the family we share and those we admire are primary elements of our journey. But the purity of our hearts is the measurement of our success. Rakow’s heart is as genuine as any. It humbles me to be counted among his friends. Rex, you are a genuine hero.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column will appear every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.